The origins of Manhattan Law School trace to a teenaged huckster, Jasper Q. Manhattan, who operated a gambling ring out of an unlicensed dental office in the early 1820s. Finally caught by local police in 1826, Manhattan hatched a plan to avoid conviction by declaring himself a lawyer, drugging the judge, setting off a firecracker in the gallery, and hiding a horse underneath the witness stand, hoping these events would all combine to create enough mayhem and confusion in the courtroom that he would be able to escape to the West Indies before anyone realized what had happened.
Unfortunately, Manhattan did not realize how far the West Indies were from the courtroom in Brooklyn Heights, and he ran out of energy by the time he got to the canal. “Is this Antigua?” he reportedly asked a young woman as he washed up on the shore. “No, it’s Gowanus,” she replied. On that very site, which was avoided by the police because of its smell, he established Manhattan Law School, which began its life as a one-room cardboard box with one student, no books, and a dead but friendly pigeon teaching Contracts.
By 1835, Manhattan’s school was thriving, with 26 students all recruited from a nearby orphanage, and a set of law books stolen from a local attorney’s office in the dark of night. Despite a setback when the school — still housed in that same one-room cardboard box — was burned to the ground by an angry professor denied tenure in 1849, MLS bounced back and graduated its largest class to date — 77 students, none of whom would live six months post-graduation — in 1853.
Manhattan died of syphilis in 1877, at the age of 72, wealthy from years of tuition checks and his tight-fisted spending. His body was removed for viewing to a Civil Procedure classroom in the school’s new building, Manhattan Hall, when angry 3Ls who had not received jobs offers from any of the city’s law firms set him on fire, burning Manhattan Hall to the ground in the process, and marking the second great fire in the school’s history.
But from the ashes, Manhattan Law School would rise again. And then, again, in 1938, after Dean of the Law School Harold F. Burden set himself — and, inadvertently, the entire building — on fire during an after-hours faculty sex party gone wrong.
In 1972 the school proudly celebrated its first student to pass the bar. And in 1978, women joined the ranks of MLS students, with the first women graduating in 1980, at a separate ceremony in the middle of the night, weeks after the men had already received their degrees.
In 2006, the faculty voted unanimously to implement an official curriculum, which was approved by a one vote margin by the Association of American Law Schools in 2015. In commemoration, a bust of Jasper Manhattan was commissioned and is displayed in the women’s restroom on the 3rd floor, open to visitors from 12-3 each weekday.